For at least the third time since John Calipari came to Kentucky seven years ago, the Wildcats are bringing in a recruiting class that is being hailed as possibly the best in the program’s history.
Expectations in Lexington are always sky high once basketball season comes around, but listening to this group of McDonald’s All-Americans tell it, those expectations will be highest in the halls of the Wildcat Lodge and on the court of the Joe Craft Center.
“We have high expectations, but I don’t want anybody to have higher expectations of us than myself or the rest of the team,” said De’Aaron Fox, who is likely to be the starting point guard on next season’s squad.
Calipari gave Fox a nickname — “The General” — shortly after he signed with the Wildcats last fall, and it’s a moniker that the Texas native clearly enjoys.
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He mentioned it a couple of times Sunday night in Chicago, where he and future teammates Bam Adebayo, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Mailk Monk have gathered to play in the McDonald’s All-American Game on Wednesday.
Fox proudly recounted the origin of the nickname, too.
According to Calipari, he said, Adebayo and Monk told the UK coach that they were excited about playing with the five-star point guard at the time of their commitments, which both came less than a week after Fox picked the Wildcats.
Calipari also told Fox that previous commitments Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel — another top-10 recruit and the fifth member of UK’s No. 1 recruiting class — started talking about playing alongside him as soon as he joined the class.
“He just said everybody wants to go to war with me leading the way,” Fox said of Calipari. “It meant a lot, that he gave me a nickname two weeks after I committed.”
Fox spent much of Sunday night loosely joking around with his future teammates, while at the same time raving about their games and speaking excitedly about next season.
He’s well aware of the expectations, but it won’t affect his outlook on the game.
“As far as pressure goes, I don’t know how they feel, but I don’t feel any pressure,” he said. “I’m doing what I love to do. So it’s not really pressure when you’re doing something that you like.
“I don’t feel pressure when I’m playing basketball. I come out here every day, I work out every day just to be able to put myself in that position. So I’m not going to let anything hold me back or weigh me down. Especially being the point guard, everything basically goes through me. I touch the ball every possession. I’m going to be a leader next year, but I’m not going to feel any pressure.”
That seemed to be a viewpoint shared by his future teammates, who spoke of their love of UK’s fans, but also sounded ready to tune out some of the more overzealous aspects of that fandom.
Yes, the expectations will be high. But they’ll be highest among those on the court.
“The fans are crazy,” Monk said with a smile. “But it’s just us players having fun and knowing what’s best for us.”
Along with the quintet of five-star recruits coming in — and the possibility that No. 1 center Marques Bolden could join that group soon — UK is also expected to return Marcus Lee, Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, Charles Matthews, Isaac Humphries, Tai Wynyard and Mychal Mulder. Isaiah Briscoe could come back, too, and it’s certainly possible that UK will once again be the preseason No. 1 team in the country.
“It’s going to be crazy,” Killeya-Jones said. “We’re going to go in there, and everybody’s going to work hard. Everybody’s going to fight in practice. That’s why I went, and that’s why a lot of these other dudes went. It’s a great coaching staff and everything, but you also get to play with the best every day in practice.
“It’s going to be intense. It’s going to be a lot of people going at each other’s necks, and everybody’s going to be getting better every day.”
Adebayo, who ESPN ranks as the No. 4 recruit in the country, actually said the words that are already on everybody’s mind, even with this year’s NCAA Tournament still ongoing.
“I want to go in there and be a dominant player, be a good teammate and hopefully win a national championship,” he said.
That’ll be the goal for these Kentucky Wildcats.
That’s the end game that they’re already discussing amongst themselves, months before they unpack their bags as college freshmen.
They know that’s what the UK fans who will cheer them on next season are thinking, too, and they’re looking forward to the challenge. It won’t be easy, but they feel like they’ve come to the right place.
“There’s 24,000 of them in that gym,” Adebayo said. “And they’ll always want to see us win. I don’t think they’ll be mad if we don’t win a national championship though. They’ll still cheer for us, because we’ll always be Kentucky alumni.”